Twelve months ago I stood here raising concerns about the treatment of Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision's manager in Gaza, who was jailed by the Israeli government. At that time, the court case was in the final stages. It still hasn't finished. It's been 5½ years that this man has been held in an Israeli prison, away from his family and away from his work with World Vision. The Jerusalem Post is a major Israeli newspaper edited by a former adviser to the current ultraconservative Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett. Last month, their editorial stated:
Israel said he diverted millions of dollars contributed by the Australian government that were earmarked for humanitarian aid to Hamas. World Vision suspended its operations in Gaza and hired investigators to check the Israeli claims. Australia did the same. After exhaustive research, they both came up with no evidence to back the Israeli claims.
Halabi's trial has dragged on for years. Something so simple—the Israeli claims that he funneled money to Hamas—should have been easy to prove in court. Why is the trial not over remains a mystery …
They go on to say:
Halabi has been in jail for more than five years and has endured 165 court sessions without any credible evidence to back the charges against him. He has been denied bail and his trial has been declared secret without any credible reason except possibly to hide the fact that the prosecutor is afraid of being exposed for unjustly keeping an innocent man in jail for such a long time.
That was from the Jerusalem Post.
Last week, there was an Australian parliamentary briefing about the case. It was addressed by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, both of whom are deeply concerned that Mr El Halabi has been tortured in custody and that the basic elements of a fair trial have not been met, including the presumption of innocence and access to the evidence being brought against him. They quoted a United Nations human rights expert, who said:
Mr el-Halabi's arrest, interrogation and trial is not worthy of a democratic state. Israeli authorities must grant him the full rights of a fair trial, or else release him unconditionally.
The forum was also addressed by the former head of World Vision Australia, Reverend Tim Costello, who said:
Mohammed has resolutely refused to plead guilty – even when he was offered a plea deal that would have seen him released by now. He maintains he is innocent and will not trade his personal freedom in exchange for a slur on the integrity of himself or World Vision … Israel has not only accused Mohammed of wrongdoing – they have suggested that World Vision and indeed the Australian Government have allowed money to go to terrorists … One wonders if this is a larger campaign to impugn any group that seeks to respond to the humanitarian needs of those who have suffered under a military occupation for decades.
Australia must condemn any attacks on legitimate human rights advocacy or aid to Palestinians and call for Mr El Halabi to be freed.